The River

Thursday, February 05, 2004

TV Nation

Up is down. War is peace. And Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is a dictator.

These are just three examples of the snow jobs promulgated by the media. And they’re just three examples of why The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.

The documentary of the same name currently showing in better theaters is about the coup attempt in Venezuela in April 2002. It is damning to Washington, to its captive press corp and, of course, to the powers behind the coup.

The film was produced by two Irish documentary filmmakers, who began their project eight months prior to the coup with the idea of producing a film about Hugo Chavez, the popular-with-the-poor and democratically elected President of Venezuela.

Once the coup attempt happened, they refocused their film on the dramatic event.

Hugo Chavez

So who is Chavez? The film begins by attempting an answer. We are told that the wealth of the fourth largest oil producer in the world is concentrated on a small percentage of well-off Venezuelans. The rest, as much as 70 percent of population, live in poverty. The disconnect of this division is nicely illustrated with a sequence in which people are given hand-gun instructions in case their servants start to revolt.

We are told that Chavez connected with the poor and used that to achieve victory in the presidential election. Early on, the film sets up this basis of Chavez’s power by showing him among the less-than-well-off, receiving and giving hugs and appreciation, even handing out pocket-sized copies of the Venezuelan Constitution, which he calls "the people's document."

He does a weekly show on the one public TV station – versus five privately held stations -- in which he takes calls from citizens. We see the handwritten notes and letters he receives by the hundreds weekly and which, it appears, are handled with care and answered. At one point, during a plane ride, he talks about the globalization issues discussed in a book given to him by a French (yes, French!) politician. He says there can’t be just one plan for globalization, as supporters want you to believe. There must be alternatives, he says, appearing to hold more democratic beliefs than his detractors credit to him. He is seen giving speeches in which he inveighs against a neo-liberal agenda for Latin America that he says amounts to slavery. He talks about the hidden and cruel hand of the “free” market and the inspiration he draws from Simon Bolivar, the General who fought for a unified Latin American Federation free of foreign rule.

In coming to power, Chavez had promised "revolutionary" social policies, using revenue from the state-controlled oil industry to improve agriculture against the interests of "predatory oligarchs,” also known as the corrupt servants of international capital. Toward that end, he has been instrumental in helping OPEC raise the price of oil. It’s easy to see why Washington dislikes Chavez. The man has even accused Washington of "fighting terror with terror" during the war in Afghanistan.

However, in this film he is likable in a way that you’d have to give him credit for even if you opposed his political views. His connection and his concern for people, his belief in trying to make Venezuela’s wealth work for all the people, appears genuine. In shots of Chavez in a crowd, or addressing one, we see people with real joy and gratitude on their faces. Later, when the coup comes down, we see the new, would-be leaders, we see the private TV pundits, and we see snippets of Administration politicians – Powell, Bush, Fleischer – and they stand out in stark relief. They seem rich, polished, and ruthless.

(In his review, Chicago Sun-Times movie critic Roger Ebert notes: “The last words in George Orwell's notebook were: ‘At age 50, every man has the face he deserves.’ Although it is outrageously unfair and indefensibly subjective of me, I cannot prevent myself from observing that Chavez and his cabinet have open, friendly faces, quick to smile, and that the faces of his opponents are closed, shifty, hardened.”)

It’s clear our filmmakers stand with Chavez. And the film is as much about attitudes as policies. The poor, mostly brown in color like Chavez, are grateful. The opposition indignant that someone would speak for the poor. Journalist Greg Palast, who has been following Venezuela, notes, “For five centuries, Venezuela has been run by a minority of very white people, pure-blood descendants of the Spanish conquistadors. To most of the 80 percent of Venezuelans who are brown, Hugo Chavez is their Nelson Mandela, the man who will smash the economic and social apartheid that has kept the dark-skinned millions stacked in cardboard houses in the hills above Caracas while the whites live in high-rise splendor in the city center.”

Attitudes about the president are split just as dramatically as the wealth. The serious polarization in this society is an interesting mirror to our own, with both the Left and the Right claiming the other is trying to impose anti-democratic policy. In the film, the Right accuses the Left of totalitarian communism, calling Chavez, elected in a landslide, a dictator (you have to laugh). The Left accuses the Right of conspiracy and anti-democratic attitudes and actions.

As the film progresses, its focus tightens on both the coup and the power of the media. The title is ironic, because the “revolution” is indeed televised, if selectively. It is, in part, fought and won or lost with television images.

The uneven confrontation pits the slick, commercial stations against the one public station. The film uses clips from each throughout. Before the coup, you see the TV pundits repeatedly questioning Chavez’s sanity. One editorial commentator peers into the camera and asks “is he crazy?”. Military leaders, invited onto the news shows, hint at the need for a coup. Protests are encouraged.

What is happening, both here in the U.S. and in Venezuela, is nicely summarized by Palast in the piece
“Hugo Chavez is Crazy!”
. Covering the U.S. media’s extremely biased reports on events in Venezuela, he notes that one broadcast shows an anti-Chavez protestor shouting, "He's crazy!” Palast continues, “And if you watched the 60 Minutes interview with Chavez, you saw a snippet of a lengthy conversation – a few selective seconds, actually – which, out of context, did made Chavez look loony.

“In the old Soviet Union, dissidents were packed off to insane asylums to silence and discredit them. In our democracy we have a more subtle – and more effective – means of silencing and discrediting dissidents. Television, radio, and print press obligingly sequester enemies of the state in the media's madhouse.”

The film provides at least one text-book example of media dishonesty and distortion. During the tumultuous days leading up to the April 2002 coup attempt, with public demonstrations both for and against Chavez growing heated, the media in Venezuela (and in the U.S.) reported that Chavez had ordered gunmen to fire on opposition protestors. What seems clear is that snipers fired on Chavez supporters, who then returned fire (many Venezuelans carry handguns, we are told). What is unmistakable is the media manipulation of this event. The film shows various TV news reports featuring a short clip of a man on a bridge firing a gun. Each one claims the man is a Chavez thug intent on murdering opposition protestors. The filmmakers, however, have aerial footage – denied to the public -- that begins with a similar close-in shot of the man and then pulls back to show that he is firing at a hidden sniper in a deserted area. For me, the repeated use of the gunman, always without its context and including reporters and anchors commentary denigrating Chavez and his supporters, is uncomfortably reminiscent of seeming endless loop of the Dean scream, along with its missing context and snide commentary.

The film ends with the two-day coup stand-off. As Chavez is captured and flown to a nearby island, our Irish filmmakers, trapped inside Miraflores, the presidential palace, keep their cameras running. We see footage of captive government ministers inside, and the demonstrations against the coup outside the palace. We see the arrival of the “new president,” millionaire businessman Pedro Carmona, who moves to quickly eliminate any vestige of Chavez's rule, dissolving Congress and canceling the constitution. However, Chavez is able to get word to his government ministers that he has not resigned and to hang tight.

Anticipating the coup attempt, the leader had hidden several hundred loyal troops in secret corridors under Miraflores. According to a Palast report, once Carmona was inside the palace, he was informed that he had 24 hours to return Chavez alive.

The atmosphere is taut. The government knows it must get word to the people that Chavez has not resigned and that he is still president. Even without this confirmation, some protestors decry the perversion of democracy and the country's constitution, making Chavez look smart for disseminating the document.

The private stations dig in, broadcasting a happy face, all but congratulating themselves on the coup and their part in it. American news media is shown praising what they call a “profoundly democratic” outcome. In Caracas, the television stations blackout the growing demonstrations, insisting all is calm and under control. Even after it is known that Chavez will be returned to power, they desperately claim that Carmona is still president and order is all but restored.

Finally, Chavez is returned via helicopter to Miraflores to resume his presidency. In contrast to the locker room backslapping by the opposition 48 hours earlier, the back-on-top government officials exchange hugs and joyous smiles. And in contrast to brutal police suppression of demonstrations before Chavez’ return on April 14 in which dozens were killed with indiscriminate police fire (the police are run by anti-Chavez mayor Alfredo Pena), we see the people singing “he’s back! He’s back!”

Fittingly, the film ends with the returned-to-power Chavez addressing the nation through the public TV station. He strikes a remarkably gentle and conciliatory tone, insisting he has no rancor for the coup plotters, asking people to return to their homes. And he has a message: To all of those who oppose us, he urges, do not let them poison your mind.

To which we also have a televised Washington response, Colin Powell stating that Washington expects it will continue to have problems with Chavez.

Even as the Mighty and their Media congratulated themselves on the "democratic" coup and celebrated this latest reassertion of their invincibility, another voice was heard.

The wretched of this earth, residents of the slums of Caracas, whose suffering is the ugly secret of the glossy US Empire, came by the thousands, in from the countryside, down from the hills around Caracas, and with loyalist soldiers they took Venezuela back from the hands of what the CIA boys like to call "Civil society," and all we can say is this is how the current worldwide empire of lies will end: by just such actions of the ordinary, wonderful, decent people of this world, God bless them.

By D. Baatar, Jared Israel, Nestor Gorojovsky & Nico Varkevisser


Hugo Chavez Is Crazy! by Greg Palast


The Revolution Will Not Be Televised lyrics by Gil Scott Heron

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